In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
—Traditional Navajo Prayer
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
There were many mornings on the Camino when I started walking before the sun came up.
While it was still very dark, I’d braid my hair, tighten my sandals over my wool socks, hug my pullover onto my arms, and set off with 16th-century castles and cathedrals towering over me as the sun rose.
I find it easier to pray in the woods than in the cathedrals.
Every time my mom and I went into a cathedral we would walk around, look at the art, and read the plaques. Before we would leave, she would find an altar—either the large one at the front or sometimes a side chapel—and pull out a tiny turtle and a penny. I would watch her in awe as she faithfully prayed for two important people in her life represented by those tiny totems. I wished I had that kind of faith, that kind of guts to go before God and plead for people you love. Faith is vulnerable, but faith is also courageous. I struggle to ask God for anything, lest I feel dumb and silly when, inevitably, the answer doesn’t come: my faith too small and my prayers too hollow.
But in the woods, I feel small in an entirely different way.
My prayers feel more like secret hopes with a hint of magic. No one is around to gauge my faith or tell me if I measure up to the standards of the saints before me. I’m just myself among the trees, feeling the divine whistling in the wind.
I remember thinking as a child that I was sure God lived in the pine trees that lined the front of our lawn. I think Jesus knew it too—that prayer can also happen in the dark when no one is around. You might not even need words.
Walking the Camino is really just one step at a time. There aren’t technical climbs you need to prepare for. You don’t need any special equipment other than a change of clothes, a lot of water, and any creature comforts you want to haul along the way. You don’t need backpacking gear like a tent or stove. You don’t carry your meals.
It is not a marathon. It is not a race. You can rest as often as you need to. Your days can be as long or as short as you wish—as long as you don’t mind how long it takes to get you there.
I met a couple of ladies who had taken five years to walk the Camino. They were from Italy and took a week each summer to walk a section together.
There are few rules in how you go about doing the Camino. You don’t even have to actually walk it; many people bicycle the Camino or even complete sections on horseback. I saw families pushing their toddlers in strollers. I saw herds of youth groups carrying mats to sleep on gymnasium floors. There is no one right way to Camino, just like there is no one right way to pray.
The walking was close to my favorite part, second only to the meals and wine with my people.
The walking was solitary, but not lonely. I never walked the same stretch of The Way twice. I set out in the mornings without a picture of what the scenery that day would hold.
Some days I came across cows eating their breakfast.
Some days only a small patch of grass separated me and speeding cars on the highway.
Some days I felt like I was only going uphill.
Some days I was completely swallowed up by the industrial district of a city.
Some days I walked through neighborhoods.
Some days I passed multiple cathedrals.
Some days I strolled through vineyards, scorched by the sun along with the grapes.
Some days I was enveloped in the trees and felt hidden from the whole wide world.
Walking was a full body experience. You know exactly what is going on around you and you stop being afraid of what is going on inside you.
I needed to feel the pull of the Earth on my body, meander through the woods alone for hours without seeing another soul, watch rays of sun flooding the tree-covered valley below. As I walked up hills and around bends, my body became a proxy for my prayers that didn’t have words.
Where do you find it most natural to pray?